One high-profile crusader takes on another

The activists' extremism subtly: Patkar compares the dam to a bomb while another activist says if the Berlin Wall could be brought down, why not this dam

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Friday 30 April 1993

NALINI Singh has made a highly successful career as a television crusader by walking on the thin edge of the permissible. No wonder Doordarshan gives her space -- she lends them credibility. Singh exposes social ills without criticising the government and covers government programmes with enough implicit criticism to make the coverage credible. She doesn't believe in radicalism so fiery that it keeps one off the country's most powerful medium. Unlike many other film-makers, Singh does not prefer to air her radicalism on UK's Channel 4, which picks up (at several times the fee) films that Doordarshan would otherwise reject as being too critical of the government.

So it's natural that at a time when the impasse over the Sardar Sarovar dam is turning untenable, Singh should come to the government's rescue. In Jis Desh Mein Narmada Baheti Hai, shown on Doordarshan in March, she takes on the activists without actually seeming to do so. She poses the crucial question at the outset: Will poverty increase with the dam being built or will it go up with work being stopped?

The question is not answered directly. A lot of figures are thrown at the viewer and it's for them to reach their own conclusions. This is possibly one of the few films made on the Narmada issue that do not make Medha Patkar the central figure. Singh gives more space to the oustees and to what the representatives of the government have to say on each issue. To each criticism she scrupulously poses counter arguments: On the question of how long will it take for the water to reach the thirsty villages, on the siltation issue, the total life of the dam, on the waterlogging issue and on the vexing problem of rehabilitation.

The film goes over the statistics peddled by both the pro-dam and anti-dam lobbies. Singh gives the critics their say and the government spokespersons theirs. Very subtly the activists' extremism is conveyed: Patkar compares the dam to a bomb while another activist says if the Berlin Wall could be brought down, why not this dam?

Privately Singh narrated only one small incident to this reviewer. She was interviewing Patkar in Baroda on a morning when The Times of India was screaming Patkar had been arrested. And there was the activist, a totally free woman, giving an interview to a government medium. What did this say about the activists' publicity machine?

Singh then tackles the human rights question, allowing the oustees their say on the poor quality of land allotted, on the plight of the landless, on changes in their eating habits because of relocation. She ends with some oustees saying they are so confused by the claims made by the Gujarat government and the charges made by the anti-dam activists that they do not know whom to believe.

The final arguments are economic. About Rs 2,500 crore has been spent on this dam project so far. Rs 6 crore is being wasted every day. Which country in the world would allow resources to be squandered in this fashion? Should the model that exists on paper never be allowed to be converted to reality on land? Will progress come from stopping the dam or from building it?

After such rhetorical questions you are left with no doubt as to what Singh thinks the answer should be. In the end she magnanimously gives the activists their due. If it wasn't for them, the government would have dragged its feet over giving land and other rehabilitation benefits to the oustees as it had done in the case of past dam projects, she says.

But the discerning viewer can hardly be fooled. One of the most dogged anti-dam campaigns in the history of environmental activism is being damned with faint praise. One high-profile woman crusader meets her match in another in Jis Desh Mein Narmada Baheti Hai.

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